By Moin Qazi
The modern public perception of Muslim women is one of the stubborn stereotypes: supposedly powerless and oppressed coming off as mute figures, bereft of even basic rights. It is true that due to various cultural influences that have corrupted modern Muslim society, women are usually undervalued and oppressed. Inequalities exist in many Muslim societies but it is also true that gender inequalities exist in many non-Muslim societies as well. It is true that in societies trapped in poverty, illiteracy and ignorance, women continue to receive abominable treatment. But then, this is true of all societies. Muslims cannot be singled out for such a flawed social order.
The early Muslim community recognised and honoured a wide spectrum of female roles and responsibilities. A mother was considered the first school for her children. In Islam, a woman is seen as an individual in her own right, an independent entity, and not a shadow or adjunct to her husband or any other man. Islamic history abounds with women who have achieved and contributed significantly to intellectual and cultural life. Yet their stories aren’t always well-known or widely acknowledged. Societies that are on a positive trajectory can fall back and they need to actively guard the progress they have made.
Several early Muslim feminists are historically acknowledged role models that every Muslim holds dear. Their lives vouch for women’s freedom of agency and the unique social status they enjoy. One such iconic and the unique female figure was Khadijah bint al-Khuwaylid (565-623), the first wife of Prophet Muhammad, whom she met when she was the widow of a wealthy merchant and was herself a highly successful and respected businesswoman. She is one of those rare female figures canonized in Islamic history.
Khadijah was the daughter of Khuwaylid ibn Asad and Fatimah bint Za’idah, tracing her lineage to the clan of Banu Hashim of the tribe of Banu Asad. Khadijah was orphaned early but she was not the one who would allow circumstances to define her future identity. She inherited her father’s business at a time in history when the social and economic landscape was male-dominated. She decided to pursue her father’s tradition and stepped into his shoes with amazing ease and traded goods through the primary commerce centres at that time, from Mecca to Syria and Yemen, hiring the most trustworthy men to handle the dangerous trade routes. She further solidified it and it soon straddled markets in several countries which gravitated to her business on account of its high quality.
Excellence, for her, was an attitude and habit, not an endgame. At the same time, Khadijah was modest and graceful, keeping a low profile and carefully avoiding public glare.
Khadijah’s business was larger than all of the Quraysh trades combined and the most acclaimed with a reputation for fair dealing and high-quality goods. When all the Quraysh caravans gathered to begin their long journeys to Syria in the winter or Yemen in the summer, the caravan of Khadijah was equal in size to all of the other caravans combined. She had a keen eye and was highly intuitive, earning the monikers Ameerat-Quraysh (“Princess of Quraysh”) and al-Tahira (“The Pure One”). She knew what she was doing business-wise, never compromising her modesty or integrity to succeed in the male-dominated trades where she had to compete with businessmen of a huge diversity of hues and stripes. She hired only those that could meet these standards. She was passionate about her business and handled her team with unfailing care .her metrics for measuring the efficiency of her people were both moral and financial.
Khadijah was a simple woman-but it was this simplicity of approach, tempered with a steely directness and disarming empathy and e a clear sense of identity and purpose, that enabled her to make a unique mark on the business of her day. It was a perfect marriage of these traits that created a thriving business that reaped rich moral and material dividends.
She was a paragon of compassion and altruism and, in keeping with Islamic tenets, she embodied philanthropy in her business. Being the most successful woman around, rich in worldly attainment as well as character, it seems Khadijah faced a consistent campaign of men seeking her hand in marriage. She was married twice before her wedlock to the Prophet; both of these marriages gifted her children, but both left her widowed. Her keen sense of piety inclined her to prefer graceful widowhood over an emotionally draining wifehood.
Khadijah seems to have been endowed with a visionary and business acumen. More importantly, she had a rich seam of grit and tenacity. She trusted her robust instincts which never let her down. The absence of primary male support following the death of her husband did not appear to weaken her resolve. Having been deprived of the protective umbrella of their parents in her youth, she must have tapped the deeper emotional springs to the last dregs to nourish her soul and spirit. Islam is solidly rooted in traditions of mercantilism and private enterprise.
Khadijah made sure that neither femalehood nor widowhood came in the way of her pursuit of an Islamic ideal. She did not sell off her business, nor did she compromise her feminine grace to continue it. She relied on her human relations skills to manage it through her small and diligent team whose members lived up to her trust. Her knowledge, skills and understanding ripened and blossomed in widowhood she handled work across genders with great panache. She embraced the vulnerabilities of widowhood as part of a process and managed to prove that it was no barrier to entering the business. She combined commerce with compassion and social conscience with financial finesse. In keeping with Islamic tenets, she embodied philanthropy in her business principles. In the process, she showed that a business, apart from being profit-oriented, can also be ethically –driven and socially –focused.
The Prophet’s uncle, under whose guardianship he was cared for after being orphaned, Abu Talib had several mouths to feed. When Abu Talib learned that Khadijah was preparing a business caravan for al-Sham, he recommended Muhammad to her, vouching for his nephew’s honesty. Khadijah recruited Muhammad without a wink. Muhammad had already earned honorific titles of Al-Sadiq (“the Truthful”) and Al-Amin (“the Trustworthy” or “Honest”) in market circles for his work and character. Recognizing these qualities, Khadijah conveyed to Muhammad, through her kinsman Khazimah ibn Hakim, that he would be receiving almost double the usual wage.
During his employment with Khadijah, Muhammad led the camel train which had Maysarah, Khadijah’s slave, as his assistant. Muhammad returned with triumphant business success. It was also a spiritual experience for him as he got to meet several saintly figures. Maysarah recounted to Khadijah the success of the business trip and how Muhammad’s bright mind and character was responsible for the success of the business trip. Khadijah was highly impressed and she developed a deep emotional bond with him.
There was more to Muhammad than his business acumen. Khadijah was so impressed and attracted by his beauty, intelligence and honesty that her respect for her employee was to turn into love. Despite her forty years of age and the indifference with which she rejected the offers of the noblest of Quraysh to marry her, she overrode convention and her own determination not to remarry a third time by proposing (through a trusted intermediary- Nafisa bint Umayya)to marry the 25-year-old.
Reciprocating her magnanimous gesture, Muhammad too bucked the norm and graciously accepted the offer. Their union, in the year595, combined perfect love with spiritual companionship, and she became the first convert in his ministry the marriage appears to have been a blissful companionship. In a society where polygamy was the norm –rather than an exception- Muhammad was devoted to Khadijah and took no other wives while married to her.
Khadijah continued her business dealings after marriage and is considered the archetypal female entrepreneur. She bore their six children, sons al-Qasim and Abd Allah, and their daughters Zaynab, Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum and Fatima (Al-Tabari puts it at eight, the earliest biographer of Muhammad, ibn Ishaq mentions seven but most sources identify six)
When Muhammad received the first revelation in a cave, it was Khadijah to whom he stumbled down the mountain. Physically shaking and unable to comprehend his experience, he turned to Khadijah, who immediately recognised the significance of what had happened and encouraged him to let go of his fears. She pacified him and consulted her cousin Waraqa bin Naufal, possibly a Christian, who affirmed Muhammad’s prophethood. She was the first to understand the importance of the revelation and was the first to embrace Muhammad’s new faith. She soothed and consoled him and allayed his apprehensions. Later it was she who sustained, strengthened, and supported him against his own doubts and bewilderment with reassuring words. She was her physical and emotional shield when Muhammad encountered mockery and derision from almost everyone in Mecca.
Khadijah played a central role in supporting and propagating the new faith and saw Muhammad through the roughest years of his becoming a prophet. She balanced everyday life with divine wonder as part of ordinary reality. She gave up everything in supporting the birth of this new religion. The mission got a powerful impetus due to her quiet but singular focus. Along with her husband, she faced persecution until her death but she demonstrated a steely determination and weathered the storms with dogged persistence and fortitude. She stood by him like a rock and was an emotional astringent during his prophethood, soaking in all his humiliations and frustrations.
It is difficult to speculate what Khadijah’s absence would have meant for the Prophet’s mission. His own acknowledgement gives us a hint. She used her emotional resilience and tenacity to tell the effects of her companionship with Muhammad. The Prophet himself confessed: “She believed in me while the people disbelieved in me. And she trusted in me while the people belied me. And she helped and comforted me in person and in wealth when the people would not. Allah provided me with children by her, and He did not with others.”(Musnad Imam Ahmad 6:118)
At another place, the Prophet showers an effusive tribute: “God Almighty never granted me, anyone, better in this life than her. She accepted me when people rejected me; she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me, and God granted me, children, only through her.”(Sahih Muslim).
The Prophet’s youngest and favorite wife ‘A’ishah narrated of Khadijah:” I did not feel jealous of any of the wives of the Prophet as much as I did of Khadijah though I did not see her, the Prophet used to mention her very often, and whenever he slaughtered a sheep, he would cut its parts and send them to the women friends of Khadijah. When I sometimes said to him, “(You treat Khadijah in such a way) as if there is no woman on earth except Khadijah,” he would say, “Khadijah was such-and-such, and from her I had children.” Sahih al-Bukhari 3818 Book 63, Hadith 44 Vol. 5, Book 58, Hadith 166)
Islamic tradition praises Asiya, Mary, Khadija, and Fatima as the four women who provided monumental examples of excellence in faith. The Prophet said, “The best of the women of Paradise are Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, Fatimah bint Muhammad, Aasiyah bint Mazaahim the wife of Pharaoh, and Maryam bint Imraan.” (Ahmad, 2663. Classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in Saheeh al-Jami’, 1135). He reiterated elsewhere: “Sufficient for you among the women of the world are Maryam the daughter of ‘Imraan. Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, Fatimah bint Muhammad and Aasiyah the wife of Pharaoh.” (Narrated and classed as saheeh by al-Tirmidhi, 3878).
The Prophet’s undying love for Khadijah, his refusal to marry any other woman until her death despite the conventions of the age, and her pivotal role in the early development of Islam are emblematic markers used by Muslim feminists to argue that Islam is woman-friendly and that, if Muhammad were here today, he would have been the strongest champion of women’s rights, with Khadijah as the most powerful symbol of it.
In 616 the Quraysh imposed economic sanctions on Prophet Muhammad and his group to crush the mission. The group sought refuge in the suburbs. The exile and boycott were brutal: no one from Mecca, not even relatives, was allowed to visit the exiled; no food was permitted to pass through the area. The sanctions lasted almost three years and were lifted in late 619 or early 620. The sanctions had a highly toxic impact. Khadijah was constantly famished leaving her physically emaciated and mentally shattered. The cumulative effect was that Khadijah’s health started sinking. In Ramadan of the tenth year of Muhammad’s prophethood, i.e., in April or May 620 CE, she passed away at the age of sixty-five, leaving Muhammad bereft of the much-needed emotional support.
She was buried in Jannat al-Mu’alla cemetery, in Mecca. Muhammad was nearing fifty. He later named the year “the Year of Sorrow”, as his uncle and protector Abu Talib too died during the same year. The two lived in perfect harmony for twenty-five years and Khadijah was an intimate friend, a wise counselor and a loving mother to his entire household. Khadijah’s death precipitated a crisis in the life of Muhammad and his followers that led to the hijra(emigration)to Medina three years later in 622
Khadijah is among those chosen few who have been assured a place in heaven. According to Prophet’s companion, Abu Hurairah: Gabriel came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! This is Khadijah coming to you with a dish having meat soup (or some food or drink). When she reaches you, greet her on behalf of her Lord (i.e. Allah) and on my behalf, and give her the glad tidings of having a palace in Paradise wherein there will be neither any noise nor any fatigue (trouble). ‘(Sahih Bukhari Volume 5, Book 58, Number 168)
Women’s emancipation and empowerment have lately acquired a negative connotation. It conjures up an image of incensed women, enraged to the point of violence at everything male. By adopting such perverse approaches, women have reversed practically many gains that they had made towards being treated equally. In the backlash provoked in conservative societies, many valiant women have been consigned to the history books, but the essence of several of them has survived. Muslm society has been the worst victim of this phenomenon.
Women must learn from history that a true feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of both women and men. The scriptures promise the same spiritual rewards to men and women. The Qur’an specifically proclaims that men and women are social, spiritual and intellectual equals. To remind ourselves of the great Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi’s eloquent words in the Mathnawi, “This woman who is your beloved, is a ray of His light. She is not a mere creature. She is like a creator”.
In the course of history, people have to turn to icons and heroes –the nearly sacred models of humanity with which we parse and model our lives . Heroism is patent in every hero, and icons are made to wear different faces in the afterglow granted to them by history and remembrance. Heroes walk alone but they become myths when they enrich and ennoble the lives and enliven the hearts of all those they touch.
Khadijah is one character who has survived the passage and driftwood of Islamic history without the faintest stain. Her character remains unvarnished and continues to radiate the same aura that endeared her to her people fourteen centuries ago. She was a trailblazing businesswoman and a philanthropist, whose life in public service was in pursuit of a fair and just world for all. Her most munificent act was in freeing slaves and investing her entire fortune in the mission of Islam. She serves as a shining beacon for modern women, having demolished the myth of a dichotomy between women and worldliness and morality and money. More than 1400 years back she showed the path to coming generations of how women can balance their spiritual and worldly lives to generate both moral and monetary capital.
Khadijah remains the foremost eradicator of gender stereotypes– indeed, of accepted norms altogether. As the first lady of Islam, she was a pioneer in several respects. Her zeal and unflagging courage propelled her to defy the constraints of patriarchy, gender and widowhood during various phases of her turbulent life. With her determination, wisdom and indelible moral template, she was a force for enormous good. She has left so much for future generations of Muslim girls and women – an inspiring legacy to live up to, and to take it forward. They must remember that they belong to that half of society that bears and births all of society. It is for them to reclaim Islam from the cultural deadweight. To be faithful to their heritage, they need to do much more than simply preserve the ashes of the fire; they need to transmit its flame.